Has China's Navy Caught Up (and Surpassed) Japan?


Has China's Navy Caught Up (and Surpassed) Japan?

While the world focuses on the Coronavirus crisis, a new report lays out the rise of Chinese seapower and how it could impact Japan and the entire Indo-Pacific region.

Toshi Yoshihara, a long-time coauthor and friend, has put out the definitive report detailing how strategic thinkers and practitioners in Communist China size up Japanese sea power. The outlook is dour. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) has overtaken Japan’s navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), by many measures over the past decade. Tokyo must play catch-up. And Washington must help.

Yoshihara entitles his report Dragon Against the Sun in apparent homage to Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun, a standard history of World War II in the Pacific. The simile invites posterity to juxtapose Japan’s plight vis-à-vis an increasingly domineering China today with its plight vis-à-vis the United States eight decades ago. Then, imperial Japan confronted a foe from the far side of the Pacific with a vastly larger economy and a forward outpost in Japan’s extended environs, namely the Philippine Islands. Today, democratic Japan confronts a nearby potential foe with an economy that surpassed its own a decade ago. The two contenders occupy cramped quarters in this incipient age of long-range precision weaponry.

Marine geography drives the contenders into contact at sea at the same time weapons technology makes it easier to strike.

Comparing the PLA Navy to the JMSDF solely on a fleet-to-fleet basis misleads under prevailing circumstances. In 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Kidō Butai, or carrier striking force, had to steam across thousands of miles of storm-beaten ocean to smite Pearl Harbor. Nor could the Kidō Butai—short on fuel and supplies after its epic voyage—sustain its attacks for long. China’s equivalents to “Pearl Harbor”—fleet hubs such as Yokosuka or Sasebo—lie within easy reach in 2020. After all, land-based armaments can reach out hundreds of miles to sea from Fortress China. PLA rocketeers could pummel Japanese bases or fleets with the push of a button, lofting volleys of land-fired ballistic missiles the JMSDF’s way.

It matters little where the firing platform resides so long as firepower arrives on the scene of battle at the time when the battle is fought. Any meaningful tally between Japanese and Chinese sea power must factor shore-based missiles and aircraft into the balance along with the seagoing component. The portents are discouraging taken on those terms.

Yoshihara sketches the portrait of a PLA Navy that has surged to eminence with impressive velocity. Two decades ago Western specialists on Chinese sea power commonly ridiculed the PLA Navy, forecasting that it would take China decade upon decade to construct an oceangoing fleet. Some doubted such a feat was possible at all. Once it became undeniable that China could build a navy—it did, therefore it could—skeptics took to denying that the PLA could build this piece of hardware or that, whether it was anti-ship ballistic missiles, state-of-the-art guided-missile destroyers, or aircraft carriers.

Chinese engineers belied their claims one by one.

Surveying rising maritime challengers of the past reveals that it takes about fifteen years from a cold start to construct a serious regional navy, another fifteen after that to construct an oceangoing navy of consequence. That’s three decades in total. Communist China’s leadership resolved to make the PLA Navy a global force around a quarter-century ago. It is on pace by historical standards if not ahead.

So much for the history lesson. Yoshihara investigates primary-source writings and finds that fatalism about the likelihood of marine conflict now merges with a confidence verging on hubris to impel Beijing’s strategic deliberations. As he puts it: “In Chinese eyes, Sino-Japanese maritime competition and naval confrontation are virtually fated.” At the same time he detects a note of triumphalism among Chinese commentators, who seem to think the PLA would defeat the JMSDF in a walkover. 

What if that mix of fatalism and vainglory reflects thinking among senior Chinese Communist Party magnates as well as analysts who write articles? If it does, then not just an increasingly favorable material balance—the numbers and quality of ships, planes, and armaments that would face off—but the elite and popular mood could predispose Beijing to belligerence. The more promising the PLA’s prospects appear, the more likely Xi Jinping will give the order when a crisis looms or opportunity beckons.

That’s doubly true if another pattern in Chinese writings holds. Namely, strategic thinkers in China exhibit a curious tendency to assume the United States would shirk its treaty commitments to Japan in times of duress. “China’s hypothetical operational successes,” observes the author, “hinge on the absence of U.S. intervention.” In other words, Chinese strategists project that any future sea-fight would pit China against an isolated Japan. A one-on-one confrontation that sidelined the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force would simplify a host of operational and tactical problems for PLA commanders.

That assumption may be false and probably is. But Beijing would hardly be the first strategic actor in history to make a mistake by acting on false assumptions. Garbage in, garbage out.

In short, capability is catching up with aspiration in China. As a result PLA overseers are increasingly bewitched by offensive operations. “Decisive engagements,” writes Yoshihara, “will constitute a core component of China’s war-winning strategy.” The transition from China’s traditional “active defense” strategy at sea to an offensive posture has been a long time coming. Active defense posits that the PLA will be the weaker combatant at the outset of a conflict. That being the case, it must resign itself to the strategic defensive until such time as it can wear down a stronger antagonist, take the strategic offensive, and win belatedly.

Yet framers of Chinese military strategy long ago envisaged dispensing with defensive methods and proceeding directly to the offense. In 2004 Beijing issued a defense white paper, or statement about how it intends to handle martial affairs, that instructed the PLA to construct forces capable of winning “both command of the sea and command of the air.” Command is a Mahanian term. Chinese nautical strategists sound like fanboys when they quote Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s definition of “command of the sea,” as they have for many years. Bidding for maritime supremacy means a force strives to crush enemy forces or drive them off more or less forever. Afterward the victor rules sea and sky and does what it pleases.

Five years ago, in its first-ever formal Military Strategy document, Beijing announced that active defense remains not just relevant but the “essence” of how officialdom views military endeavors. Those are strong words. But they may be an artifact of the decades when the PLA and its forebear, the Red Army that waged civil war and fought Japan, remained a large, backward, and overmatched force. If the PLA can seize the offensive at the onset of fighting while entertaining reasonable chances of victory, then it makes perfect sense to depart from an obsolescent way of war. Mastery can come early rather than late.

What to do about all of this? While the hour is late, Yoshihara insists that all is not lost. First, geography remains Japan’s faithful friend. Japan occupies the northern arc of Asia’s first island chain and regulates access to the Western Pacific. If Tokyo fields the right mix of sea, air, and ground forces, then it could pen up PLA ships and aircraft within the island chain along with merchant traffic that conveys the lifeblood of China’s import- and export-dependent economy. Japan can bring the pain despite being outnumbered at sea. Its capacity to inflict military and economic pain translates into deterrence.

Next, Xi may have erred by vesting China’s national prestige in the PLA Navy. He touts the navy as the champion of “China’s dream,” his program for national rejuvenation. Well and good. But what would happen if the bearer of China’s dream took hard knocks in action? The Imperial Japanese Navy crushed the Qing Dynasty’s Beiyang, or Northern, Fleet during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Painful historical memories would be dredged up if the PLA Navy surface fleet, the Qing fleet’s successor, suffered grave losses in a rematch against the JMSDF, the Meiji fleet’s successor.

Defeat—or even a victory that came with heavy costs—would land a blow against Xi’s prestige vis-à-vis the Chinese people and China’s neighbors. China’s dream would be denied its happy ending. Xi may be less than eager to roll the dice knowing the political stakes for himself as well as the nation. Imaginative Japanese strategy and force design could amplify his misgivings.

With apologies to Hippocrates, Tokyo should make “do harm” its motto when preparing for sea combat. Plot to thrash the PLA Navy—and give the maximal leader’s reputation a beating in the process.

Japanese leaders, furthermore, should work with their counterparts in Washington to make sure both allies remain steadfast when put to the test. Part of the alliance challenge is diplomatic. As statistics guru Nassim Nicholas Taleb might counsel, the allies must show each other—as well as spectators such as the communist leadership in Beijing—that they have “skin in the game” of maritime defense. Statements of common purpose are fine, but the allies must do more. They should do things to convince everyone they will stand together in tough times. For example, forming a truly unified fleet, under a combined command and perhaps featuring mixed ship and aircrews, would guarantee that neither ally could desert the other in a fight—even if it would.